Jim Thompson never had much luck in the movies. The couple of pictures he wrote for Kubrick in the fifties got him nothing but six episodes of television over six years. Seven years later, Sam Peckinpah made a popular movie out of a screenplay that gutted his novel, “The Getaway.” Nine years later, the French turned “Pop. 1280” into “Coup de Torchon,” and it wasn’t half bad, in part because they cast an ugly guy in the lead. Nine years after that, “After Dark My Sweet” was turned into neon rubbish by noir wannabe James Foley, who cast pretty boy Jason Patric in role that was more suited to Rondo Hatton. The next year, another neon noir was culled from “The Grifters.” Finally, Michael Winterbottom has come along to make things right.
The first obvious difference between Winterbottom’s Lou Ford, played by Casey Afflect, and Stacy Keach’s homicidal lawman in Burt Kennedy’s 1976 version. is that Keach dispatched his female victims with a single punch, whereas Winterbottom shows us that it takes quite a few brutal jabs to break a persons face, and more than that to kill somebody. The murders in this new version are almost impossible to watch, as Winterbottom carries on with something Hitchcock started in “Torn Curtain,” to show how difficult, and how ugly, is the act of bare-fisted murder.
If Casey Afflect is a pretty boy, he is a psychotic pretty boy in the Vic Morrow tradition, which makes him just about perfect for “The Killer Inside Me.” Winterbottom has found a playable modern context for this once-renegade figure of American sleaze literature. He is no longer the unthinkable spectre of death, but an incarnation of the contemporary American dream, the man who feels no moral discomfort at murder as a means of self-improvement, the dispassionate American to whom a phrase like “collateral damage” have no more meaning than “downsizing,” “outsourcing,” or “early retirement.”
While the art direction owes something to the covers of Thompson’s pulp novels of the 1950’s, the moral atmosphere is contemporary, In the 1950’s, Americans still reacted with horror at the idea of murder. Books such as “The Killer Inside Me” were more a psychic eruption of guilt complexes accrued during the second world war than literal tales of things that were possible within the scope of practical human experience. In the 60’s. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” chilled the bones of the American reader, who could barely accept that human beings could commit such acts. Now, however, we live in an age where life has been devalued, where murder is a daily occurrence, and not just the acts of psychotic animals or master criminals, but of ordinary people, school kids even. For Thomspon, Lou Ford was a case, his compulsion to murder a sickness. Winterbottom sees him as the manifestation of a more general type, a step down the ladder of humanity to a more primitive sensibility, one which has become increasingly common in today’s world. As we watch this adaptation of a book written sixty years ago, it becomes chillingly apparent that “The Killer Inside Me” has become the killer inside us.
Thompson wrote furiously, his writing as erratic as the moods of an alcoholic. Some days he was a genius, others just a hung-over slob. His novels are characterized by wild highs and lows, events that won’t fit conveniently into neatly conceived plots, passages of literary fire followed by indifferent greys. Winterbottom makes no attempt to even things out. That would be like shooting lithium into Thompson’s prose. If something doesn’t make sense, then it doesn’t make sense. The ending Burt Kennedy gave his version of “The Killer Inside Me” resembled that of any conventional ABC movie of the week. Winterbottom’s climax is closer to Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” It is comprehensible only when seen from inside the inferno from which it springs.